Beginning June 1, through June 21, I’ve been sharing a recommended read by an indigenous author each day on Twitter. Today, here, thoughts on an assortment of Lee Maracle’s books. On May 30th, there was talk of the latest Thomas King mystery, on June 1st talk of Daniel Heath Justice’s Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, and there will be another post here on June 21st.
Lee Maracle has been called one of the most prolific indigenous (Sto:lo) authors and one of the earliest to be published in the 1970s: she is a vitally important creator. She is an activist and a warrior, a mother and a daughter, a reader and a writer – and much more. (Her works also have been discussed here and here previously.)
The first of Lee Maracle’s works that I read was her novel Sundogs, which I purchased on a whim at the feminist bookstore. When it was freshly in paperback, when stores like that stocked small-press and local-press publications that even the other indie bookshops wouldn’t stock, simply because they told women’s stories.
Published in 1992, Sundogs includes a preface, by Mike Meyers of the Seneca Nation, which draws a connection between the Oka resistance and the importance of understanding the culture being threatened, both in the current political climate and in the pages of the novel. It describes Sundogs as a book which “shows the reader Aboriginal people as real humans who are buffeted by many forces and factors and our ongoing struggle to make sense of it all”. This was remarkable in 1992. It’s still remarkable.
If I had read Lee Maracle’s earlier book, Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel, I would have recognized the love of books and literature that appears in Sundogs: “I hurl my womanhood at libraries full of imaginative escape from my body. Dream myself onto the pages of Zola, Dickens, even Shakespeare. Othello becomes a woman, a desirable black woman. I blacken Cleopatra, become her. She becomes me. I dream.”
There’s lots of talk about identity – how one fits and how one makes oneself fit, how one is allowed to fit and how one insists on fitting – in both of these early volumes. In a 1990-reissue of 1975’s Bobbi Lee, Lee Maracle adds a lengthy appendix to what she refers to as the “first volume” in Bobbi Lee’s life story. This “biographical novel” does tell the story of tribal village politics giving way to the Red Power movement, of ideological resistance developing within youth groups and the battle for indigenous people’s self-determination but also of a young woman’s struggle. She explains: “I did not really want to write, I needed to.”
Later, in Sundogs, the narrator still recognizes schisms in her view of and engagement with the world: “She is Native enough to feel everything she thinks and hears, but French enough to get wild about it.” In Ravensong (1993; reprinted in 2017), the gulf between colonial and indigenous cultures is wide, but there are gaps to cross within indigenous culture as well, within communities, whose experiences may share many similarities (particularly the violence women and girls experience).
“Her cheekbones were higher, more prominent than theirs; her face had none of the fleshiness of their own people. Her chin had once been neatly carved. Her face had had a beautiful chiseled look before the snake had rearranged it. Now with her nose broken, her jaw out of place, and her chin looking deranged, it was hard to tell her national origins at all. Momma took one glance at her.
‘Manitoba Saulteaux,’ she said.”
In her introduction to My Home As I Remember, she gathers artwork and prose and poetry by many indigenous artists (with Sandra Laronde) and comments on the intersections between and divergences within the women’s experiences:
“Memory takes on life, social significance, feminist governance, sociological future, and then returns to the heart as a beautiful gemstone. We offer each piece, each memory, each moment to you, the reader, that you may understand the fire of our origins and commit us to your memory.”
Some of her works carry an overtly instructional tone. (Like her YA novel, Will’s Garden, in which Will remarks on his fear of the movie Joy Luck Club, by observing that it “opens the door to the secret space of motherhood…shows what you never want to see as a man”.) There are passages – in the earlier novels, too – where you can see the virtual finger wag. As in First Wives Club: Coast Salish Style, which Marilyn Dumont describes as a collection which “fuses poetry, fiction, ‘myth’, non-fiction, personal essay and memoir in prose”. Fingers are wagging, often at boys and men, sometimes making other more definitive gestures.
More often, however, there is a beckoning gesture, an invitation to look more closely – or differently – at situations which warrant a second-look. As in her poems included in Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together (Ed. Steve Heinrichs). Consider this excerpt from “Blind Justice”:
“My body has always understood justice
‘Everyone eats’ is our law and so we included you
There is no word for exclusion in our language,
So your whiteness was never the threat
This is not the first massive death we have endured as we died we girded up our loins,
Recovered and rebuilt.”
These are important questions to ask, and sometimes they are hard questions to hear. As in her essay “This Fractured Family Still Depends on Its Mother”, which appears in the 2017 collection, The Good Lands: Canada Through the Eyes of Artists (a gorgeous volume published by Figure 1: highly recommended):
“What role might we have played, had a place at the table been offered? What influence could we have had on modern governance, science, music, dance, literature, and art? What genius might we have shown?”